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RAISING THE CURTAIN ON 20 YEARS OF MEMORIES AT PA. PLAYHOUSE

The Morning Call Newspaper Company
by Geoff Gehman, The Morning Call
Friday, October 25, 1985


This is the story of a fire, a shotgun, a sheep and a rubber chicken.

This is the story of the Pennsylvania Playhouse, which 20 years ago opened in a steel building next to a municipal golf course on Illick's Mill Road in Bethlehem. Alumni and officials of the community theater will toast its anniversary during a dinner tonight. They will reminisce about 20 years of comedies, farces, musicals, psychological mysteries, dramas, children's productions, occasional stabs at experimental plays and all those anecdotes behind the programs plastered on the north wall of the playhouse's lobby.

Some local theater veterans date the playhouse back to 1944, when Stefan and Rita George and John Gosztonyi opened the Drawing Room Theater along School Street in Bethlehem. From that arena stage came several actors who later joined the Bethlehem Civic Theatre, along Old York Road under the Hill to Hill Bridge. When the Bethlehem Community Players, which operated out of the Hotel Bethlehem, merged with the Civic Theatre in the late 1950s, the Pennsylvania Playhouse was officially born.

Old York Road continued to be the playhouse site until 1964, when the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority announced it wanted to raze the former brewery barrel house to make way for a park. The city compensated by buying the building and awarding the theater a tract of land on Illick's Mill Road. Pride in Bethlehem's status as Steel City convinced playhouse leaders to sheathe the building in steel.

The comic mystery ''A Shot in the Dark'' opened the ''Playhouse in the Park'' on Oct. 23, 1965. A few constants were set that night. After 20 years and more than 160 productions, the farce/comedy/mystery remains a playhouse staple. Director Humphrey Fry and actors Hunt Mathews and Helen Fry are still active in theater affairs; they are three of many veterans who consider the playhouse as a surrogate child.

Like many community theaters, the playhouse has made its mark with musicals, mysteries, comedies, dramas and hodgepodges. Ask a local theatergoer for representative titles and you'll probably hear ''Gypsy,'' ''Dial M for Murder,'' ''Godspell,'' ''Barefoot in the Park.'' Ask a parent of a child enrolled in the playhouse's Young Actors Studio, in operation since 1968, and you'll get ''Androcles and the Lion,'' ''Peter Pan'' and ''The Gingerbread House in the Forest.'' But while the theater has covered plenty of Neil Simon, it also has resurrected a number of obscure, other-world-sensibility plays like ''Gramercy Ghost,'' ''But Why Bump Off Barnaby?,'' ''The Tunnel of Love'' and ''Everybody Loves Opal.''

Every now and again playhouse actors have done a little stretching. Sandwiched between light works have been meatier plays like ''I Never Sang for My Father,'' ''That Championship Season,'' ''The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man- in-the-Moon Marigolds,'' ''Of Mice and Men,'' ''Murder in the Cathedral'' and ''The Caine Mutiny Court Martial'' (which opens Nov. 8). ''A Hatful of Rain,'' about drug addiction, opened in 1970. The next year, ''Summertree,'' an indictment of the Vietnam War, debuted during the William Calley scandal.

Even non-mainstream plays have been staged at the Illick's Mill Road theater. In 1971 the iconoclastic George Miller started an avant-garde branch which produced items like ''What the Butler Saw'' and ''The White House Murder Case.'' Poor scheduling and protests over somewhat risque material led to Miller's exit. Two years later, the Amazing Shoestring Players came up with ''Waiting for Godot.'' In 1984 Miller returned to direct ''The Threepenny Opera.''

Competition from rival theaters and the fickle nature of volunteerism are problems most community theaters face. The playhouse has not only encountered these challenges, it had to rebuild its theater. A fire on Dec. 31, 1974 gutted the building. Productions were staged at Northampton County Area Community College until Aug. 1 of the next year.

A few changes had been made in seven months. Gone was the red-velvet curtain. A proscenium stage had been replaced by a semi-thrust model. More important to the theater's future was what remained. The water-damaged lighting board would create many limitations until it was replaced in 1983.

Playhouse staffers have had to put up with everything from cramped performance, rehearsal and storage space to the din created by rain on the metal roof to minuscule budgets. However, in this the 20th anniversary year, pleasant and/ or bizarre memories are the rule.

Item: In 1975, director Dick Dickerman asks Edward Albee if the playhouse can use a shotgun made for the original Broadway production of ''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'' The gunsmith sends the weapon.

Item: The same year, the playhouse pinch hits for Civic Little Theatre in Allentown. When illness and injury put an end to CLT's ''Our Town,'' the Bethlehem outfit hauls its version of ''The Sunshine Boys'' to the 19th Street Theatre.

Item: For a 1972 production of ''Gypsy,'' director Dan Sigley insists on a real sheep. The animal is happy when circled by humans; however, when left alone in a dressing room, it begins to moan. The baahing is heard by the audience.

Item: A film showing the rise of a fictional movie star is needed for a segment of ''The Apple Tree.'' The cast moves to the Boyd Theatre in Bethlehem to shoot a crowd scene. The crowd in the movie house isn't aware a home movie is being made.

Item: In 1979, the playhouse includes in a program its support for John Cornish, who is running for membership on Bethlehem City Council. Cornish is a playhouse fixture, having served as president, treasurer and a chief fund raiser.

In spite of infighting and volunteer woes, the playhouse still inspires this type of loyalty. Dan Roebuck's first memory of the theater is of Hunt Mathews, the director of the infamously bad ''The Beauty Part,'' doubling as janitor. The actor, who in February will start filming a movie starring Matthew Broderick, recalls Mathews' other duties as set builder/designer, mask maker, make-up man and emergency understudy. To Roebuck, going out of his way to save the theater some money is one of many signs of dedication on Illick's Mill Road.

''I always recommend to parents with kids who have problems to send them over there,'' he said in a recent telephone interview from Hollywood. ''They give you a lot of responsibility early.''

Behind this willingness is of course a dire need for staffers. Roebuck prefers to emphasize staff flexibility.

''If you're on crew over there, there's always a great effort made to make sure the crew is part of the cast,'' he insisted. ''You always felt that if you didn't get in a show, you could always work on crew, and that was almost as good . . . ''

Roebuck regards the playhouse as his third ''home.'' He booked his wedding reception there, although he admits ''it was a pretty cheap place to have it.'' And when he needs a laugh and a whiff of good times he remembers a certain rubber chicken.

For years a fake fowl has made a surprise appearance on closing nights. It was served as part of a meal in ''Shenandoah'' and ''1776.'' In ''Mary, Mary'' it popped up on a closet shelf. Usually it returns immediately to its roost in the lighting booth.

''Some directors fight it, and sometimes it doesn't happen, but often it seems to appear,'' notes Helen Manderbach, chairman of the playhouse's board of directors and part of its lifeblood. ''The audience doesn't always know it's there . . . ''

The Pennsylvania Playhouse continues to be a center of education, inspiration and fun. All of these factors kindle fidelity.

''I call it a house of appreciation,'' says actor/comedian Tim Roche, a member of the Young Actors Studio inaugural class. ''You do hard work, you get appreciated for it.'' That's why, even though he is no longer a regular on Illick's Mill Road, he insists that ''my heart will always be there.''